Hobbes on the state of nature and the social contract

Steven asked:

Thomas Hobbes theory of knowledge is not altogether original. What has given him a name in history is his exaltation of brute force among men and in the state, what do you think of this?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

The answer to your first sentence is partly yes and partly no. Because Hobbes attempted to analyze primitive human instincts and appetites in a scientific manner similar to Galileo and Descartes. But his solution was that he tried to overcome the scientific problem by introducing the Social Contract Theory. And this theory of the state is his original concept.

Which means that your claim about him exalting brute force is totally off the mark. He needs this kind of concept only to show that man, as a rational animal, has ways and means of overcoming it.

In Hobbes’ philosophy, the rational state grows out of this state of nature where brute force reigns. The way this happens is by people forming communities with the view to protecting each other against brute force by individuals.

So they form a social contract, which spells out the freedom and obligations of each member of the community.

Eventually he develops the point of view that large states need an absolute central authority. Therefore the term ‘sovereign definer’ embodies the concept of sovereign authority.

This is the opposite of despotism, because the ultimate power still remains with the community. In the social contract and law, Hobbes says that the obligation can only be based on the freely given consent of each man to give up some portion of his personal freedom. It becomes communal freedom and defines the concept of justice.

Accordingly there must be an ‘impartial instance’, e.g. a judge, to arbitrate disputes. Hobbes’ king is bound to the social contract together with his subjects. He is the first servant of the state and only entitled to so much wealth and honour as befit his authority as the head of the state. Indeed Hobbes makes it clear that the social contract requires the king to be faithful to the state in the performance of his duties. If he fails or refuses, the subjects have cause for rebellion and should seek to depose their king.

This also includes the separation of justice, over which the monarch has no power.

Historically Hobbes was opposed by royalists because he took away the absolute power of the monarch. Democrats resented him because he reinstated monarchical authority. That made him the meat in the sandwich.

However, when the English parliament decided to execute their king (Charles I), the intellectual and political foundation for this was none other than Hobbes’ social contract.

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